Horace Silver is one of those jazz musicians who, by being more than usually successful became—precisely as a result of his success—more than usually overlooked. In Silver’s case, his success damned him not as a sell-out but as a “funky” and accessible musician devoid of tortured depth.
Silver earned this distinction by playing the piano and writing tunes in a blues-drenched idiom that subsumed bebop into such a snappy package that his tunes would (in the 1980s and ‘90s) be pillaged for a million hip-hop samples. Beginning in the early 1950s, he played with the best New York jazzmen, ultimately forming a band called The Jazz Messengers with drummer Art Blakey. While Blakey would carry that name forward, Silver continued to lead bands in the very much the same driving vein, and these two bands—both recording for Blue Note Records over two decades—would define the “hard bop” movement and school several generations of musicians. While the Messengers was the more notable unit for pure blowing, The Horace Silver Quintet featured the crystalline writing and arranging of Silver himself. It was the more elegant, appealing unit, and therefore less critically praised.
Silver’s Blue, freshly re-released on Columbia, is one the earliest albums from a Silver-without-Blakey edition of the Messenger band, and the only one on this label. Featuring saxophonist Hank Mobley most prominently, this band exudes the kind of precise relaxation that is the essence of the Silver style. Without Blakey setting up Niagara Falls behind every soloist, the band strolls with a smile on its face through a thoughtful set of both originals and clever arrangements of standards. It may be the first full-faced glimpse of what would make records like Song for My Father and Blowin’ the Blues Away such upbeat pleasures in the years to come. That said, Silver’s Blue is not quite at that level.
This collection contains at least three tracks that any jazz fan would immediately peg as being Silver gems, clever numbers that stick in your head and bear the happy-blue mark of Silver’s style. “Shoutin’ Out” makes the quintet—featuring Joe Gordon’s trumpet, Doug Watkins on bass, and Kenny Clarke’s drums as well as Mobley—sound like a tiny big band on pep pills. The melody is voiced in fetching harmony, giving way to a typically swinging statement from Mobley. Hank is really the star of this session, leaving these gorgeous rests in the middle of his unpredictable statements so that the beginning of each phrase greets your ears like a pretty girl. “To Beat or Not to Beat” is similarly catchy, starting with a key shifting statement of motif that is then used in an irresistible bop line. The bridge is sunlight shooting through the tune. Again, Hank plays with relaxed vigor, but it’s Silver’s solo that glimmers. Horace plays with a combination of childish innocence—his melodies seeming simple and in the pocket—and contrapuntal complexity, the left hand rumbling one and two-note statements as if they were written for a drummer. The third standout track is Silver’s arrangement of Frank Loesser’s “I Know,” which features Donald Bryd’s trumpet and Art Taylor on drums. Most of the head is played without swing over unison beats from the rhythm section. In the last few bars, when Watkins and Taylor start to walk, the sense of release is total. Each of these songs is distinctive Silver-ware, plotting the course of a career to come.
Two other standards are given a tasty Silver makeover. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” starts in a Latin groove with Donald Byrd playing the melody alone, then Hank’s solo statement moves straight into a 4/4 walk with spicy results. “How Long Has This Been Going On” is read on muted trumpet and tenor as a re-harmonized ballad, not the bluesy plea that we’re used to. Byrd then solos over a ballad feel that mixes pedal tones and impressionistic harmony. Though this isn’t the classic Silver sound, it shows what a versatile band this could be.
Perhaps the most refreshing original tune is the opener and title track, a straight twelve-bar blues where Mobley and Byrd play in loose dialogue rather than snappy repartee. Both Silver and Mobley solo with exceptional harmonic fluency, unearthing fresh sounds from the oldest form in jazz.
For fans of hard bop, this early serving of Silver has been relatively under-heard. It’s a genuine pleasure if not a revelation, taking its rightful place in the center of Horace Silver’s admirable discography. It may do little to deepen fans’ appreciation for Silver’s hip sophistication other than to remind them that his upbeat blues ‘n’ bop formula was there all along—never formulaic and fresh from the start.